Thursday, October 9, 2014

No rest yet for Warrnambool's Maremma dog penguin guardians at Middle Island

IT seems the Maremma dogs guarding Warrnambool’s endangered penguins have several more years of guard duty on the windswept Middle Island rookery before being retired. And the city council is likely to have to continue underwriting the project for at least another five years until the colony can survive on its own. Mayor Michael Neoh has again challenged the Napthine government to step up by taking financial responsibility for the significant wildlife asset.

The world-famous experiment, which started in 2006 when the little penguins were facing extinction after savage attacks by foxes and stray dogs, is still years from reaching a self-sustaining population, but the signs remain positive.

According to figures presented to Warrnambool City councillors Monday night there are now about 120 little penguins on the rookery — about the same as in 2005, but well below the 600-plus 14 years ago. Experts calculate a population of 500 will be needed to survive future predators without protection by trained Maremmas. More than $100,000 has been spent on the project since former Dennington chook farmer Allan Swampy Marsh suggested his Maremmas could save the colony, which had been reduced to only four birds late in 2005.

Last financial year it cost $32,500 to run the program while income came from the council with $15,000, plus $20,250 worth of in-kind voluntary support, $10,000 from Deakin University and $10,500 from environment community groups and a rivers catchment grant.

This year a further $15,000 has been allocated by the council and Deakin University will continue its three-year sponsorship of $10,000 annually.  Supervised tours of the island in summer are expected to yield about $2000.

There are hopes tourism will bring a strong new revenue stream, especially after next year’s international release of the Oddball movie portraying how the project began. New business partnerships linked with the penguin program are also likely to spring up.

Cr Neoh said the council bravely stepped in to save the colony and had continued to uphold its role as local custodian. “But I don’t think the council owns the penguins, the state government needs to look at its responsibility,” he said. “Given its an election year we need to pressure the government.”
City growth director Bill Millard said predictions were that it could take another three to five years for the population to be regarded as sustainable. In the longer term I’m not sure how we keep foxes and feral animals off the island,” he said. “In the short term unfettered public access to the happy penguin parade is not in the mix.”

This week the council unanimously endorsed a strategic plan to 2019 with four objectives: continuing increase in the penguin population, mitigate canine predation, secure ongoing income including potential partnerships with business, tourism and other sources, and build community understanding of conservation projects.

When the target colony size of 500 is achieved the project will be re-evaluated to consider the need for further dog patrols. Councillors were told all Victorian penguin colonies last year showed minimal population growth, attributed to a food shortage.


No comments: